Lawmakers split on Health and Social Services budget changes

Rep. Les Gara addresses the Alaska House of Representatives in 2015. He supported transferring funds on Monday to pay for more social workers in the Office of Children’s Services. (Photo by Skip Gray/360 North)

Differences between lawmakers are emerging on how deeply to cut the state budget.

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For example, the House Finance Committee discussed the $1.06 billion the state spends on the Department of Health and Social Services, recommending $21 million in cuts from last year’s budget.

But committee members who are part of the Republican minority caucus voted for deeper cuts.

The committee voted along party lines on a proposal to transfer $3.3 million that Gov. Bill Walker’s administration doesn’t expect to spend on adult public assistance. It would instead be used to hire more social workers in the Office of Children’s Services.

Anchorage Democrat Rep. Les Gara said more social workers are needed to shorten the time it takes to reunify families.

“We have a system right now that burns out 50 percent of our new caseworkers within the first year,” Gara said.

North Pole Republican Rep. Tammie Wilson said the state needs to overhaul its entire system for how it handles the Office of Children’s Services before it spends more money on it.

“My concern about adding money to a broken system is, that won’t fix it. And we need to fix the system before we start adding into it,” Wilson said.

The committee voted along caucus lines, with all seven members of the mostly Democratic majority voting in favor of the transfer, and all four minority members voting against it.

The committee also split along caucus lines on whether to recommend that the state close the Nome Youth Facility. The majority cited a state-funded report that says the detention facility does exceptionally well at meeting the needs of area youth. The committed voted seven to four against closing the facility if the cost of closing it doesn’t lead to cost savings.